CORONAVIRUS: Put your trust in the medics, not the media

by John Ward 

The Western mass media seem determined to scare the wits out of (or distract) their citizenry with headline screamers treating Novel Coronavirus 2019 as an indestructible Horseman of the Apocalypse. The Slog offers some facts as an aid to a good night’s sleep.

This was the London Times lead this morning:


Nature magazine has called 2019-nCoV “a deadly virus”, adding that ‘On 30 January, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a “public-health emergency of international concern” — an alarm it reserves for events that pose a risk to multiple countries and which requires a coordinated international response’.

We’ll come back to that Nature alarmism in a paragraph or two.

“It seems like the virus has got out of hand in China, spread too far, too quickly to really be contained,” says Ian Mackay, a virologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

Is he right? And what should we be looking for in its progress? There are a limited number of variables. Let’s start with Mackay of Brisbane.


Ian Mackay is wrong, basically. Of the 11,374 confirmed cases right now, 11,221 have been found in mainland China. That’s 99%. 58% of these are from the Wuhan region. “The risk of acquiring this infection outside of Hubei province and, truly, outside of China is remarkably low,”  says the University of Toronto.

It is spreading rapidly, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) is rarely prone to optimism: it held a presser yesterday and said not only is it a long way from being a pandemic, it’s not even an epidemic as yet: it’s just an outbreak.

Death rate.

The virus’s ability to transmit from human to human has been around six to seven weeks. A Corona-style virus is always more virulent in the early stages: in the first few weeks (it’s thought) 2019-nCoV was killing 4% of victims. By 28th January, the death rate had dropped to 2.43%.

The rapid spread since then – from 4,400 to 11,374 cases by this morning (February 1) nevertheless displays a further fatality drop to 2.27%.

Speed of transmission.

There is no question that 2019-nCoV is spreading rapidly in China. That is highly unlikely to be replicated beyond China (and outside of Asia) and there’s a very good reason why: it’s called hygiene. This is an extract from a Chinese (European) resident I recieved two days ago:

‘I have been living in Beijing for the last two years. I came here to have an extended course of Traditional Chinese Medicine and I am a total convert to its view of how the body works and how energy moves within it. I am certain that TCM is going to become increasingly popular in the West – although the current crisis may hamper its progress.

However, while I am loathe to criticise my hosts, the fact remains that standards of hygiene – personal and environmental – are appalling in this country. Inevitably one becomes accustomed to certain things over time but even so I am often disgusted by, for example, bathrooms in restaurants or at the university where I work. My TCM doctor is one of the most amazing men I’ve ever met and he has transformed my health but I am regularly astonished by the state of his house.’ 

For one reason or another, over the decades I have had a long and happy relationship with the Chinese – more especially among the diaspora since the days of Chiang Kai Shek, and then Mao Tse Tung. Chinese expats returning to their homeland have offered the same opinions to me as those expressed above. My brother went there on an extended visit seven years ago, and lost two stone he could ill afford to lose; it was months before he recovered.

In short, mainland China is a haven for the spread of infection. Covering sneezes & handwashing are both vitally important, because 2019-nCoV moves from person to person through exposure to droplets from coughing or sneezing. Time and again I have read over the last ten days that face masks are “a waste of time”. This is a myth: if a person already infected wears one and sneezes, the likelihood of droplet issue is hugely reduced.

But ultimately, my point is this: both the tenets of traditional Chinese medicine, and the still evident rural peasant hygiene practices, are a catalyst for contagion. The idea that First World societies will give the Coronavirus such an easy ride is ridiculous.

Per sufferer contagion.

The jargon thing here is RO. It’s a measure of how many others Mr Sneezy is likely to infect.

Again, the proviso is the relatively short data series we have to hand. But so far, each individual infected with 2019-nCoV has transmitted the virus to an average of 1.4 to 2.5 others. That makes it less contagious than SARS (which had an R0 of 3) but more contagious than seasonal flu.

Comparative data doesn’t sell many newspapers, so the MSM has thus far not covered it, as such. Solid scientific sites with sound reputations have.

The mutation danger.

It is true that the longer they’re allowed to feed on a species host, the more likely SARS/MERS style viruses are to mutate. But the timescale involved here makes a mockery of some of the more hysterical coverage over the last fortnight.

In a world of modern anti-pandemic medicine, the likelihood of mutation drops to almost zero if the virus is rapidly starved of weak hosts by (for example) older males avoiding crowds and environments where there are few if any washing facilities. Judging by the limited series-data we have so far, doing this to 2019-nCoV over the next nine months would burn it out.

Explaining this requires a little pointy-headed moment – for which I apologise – and will keep as brief as possible.

Like every life form, this new virus has a DNA. It’s not called that, but that’s not important right now. In all, 2019-nCoV has nearly 29,000 nucleotide bases that hold the genetic instruction code required to produce – and then if neessary mutate – the virus.

So far, analyses of this new kid on the block suggest that it mutated from an ancestor 25 to 65 years ago. Thus, it probably took 2-4 decades at least to mutate into what has just appeared. This last three days, I have been unable to find a single relaible virologist who thinks 2019-nCoV is suddenly going to surprise us by slashing its mutation period some 96%.

But never say never.

Time to round off with some tentative conclusions, and put things into perspective.

A Boston Children’s Hospital Computational Health Informatics spokesperson had his to say yesterday:

“We know [2019-nCoV] can cause sustained transmission in humans, but SARS was substantially more infectious, and relatively easily contained”.

So far, 259 people have died from the virus.

Seasonal flu kills between 250,000 and 650,000 people around the world annually.

In 1918-19, around 500 million people (one-third of the world’s population) became infected with the so-called Spanish flu virus. The virus killed ten per cent of all those who got it.

None of the global cooperation systems or DNA analyses were available to the medics of the time. The species wasn’t wiped out, and there was no return to the Middle Ages.

Sensible avoidance is all we need to contain this rather less than “deadly” virus. I continue to believe that the only pandemic we have in 2020 is media-orchestrated panic….and an important form of avoidance is to stop reading tabloids.